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South Waterfront's revenge

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Thursday, July 24, 2014


Remember the naysayers?  Those who called the South Waterfront aerial tram a boondoggle?  Those who rejoiced at the massive write down of luxury condos at the John Ross and Atwater Place?

Ten years ago, the city and private developers converted a former brownfield into a high rise condo and apartment district. But the housing collapse and credit crisis soon crippled the neighborhood.

South Waterfront, shall we say, languished — an example of Portland planning hubris, an urban pipe dream.

What a difference a recovery makes.

Today, South Waterfront is shaping up to be the most intriguing, diverse and iconic neighborhood in the city  — a 60-acre mixed use riverfront district anchored by a health sciences campus, working shipyard, high and low rise residences, restaurants/cafes and cutting edge public transportation options, from the aerial tram to Tilikum Crossing.

And it’s all tied together by the water and plenty of public spaces for the neighborhood to dip into.

But what really caught my eye as I was riding my bike through the neighborhood this week were the people: the signs of life and the buzz of activity that distingush a truly great urban neighborhood.

In the past year, the city’s signature foodie businesses have started migrating to South Waterfront, with Lovejoy Bakers, Cha Cha Cha and Greenleaf among the recent additions — located in the Emery, a $20 million market rate apartment building that opened in 2013. During rush hour, the line was out the door at Cha Cha Cha, with hundreds of people milling about the tram and Go By Bike valet service. Summer events, from movie nights to farmers markets, also draw interested hordes.

All this is but a trickle compared to the tsunami of people about to flood the neighborhood. By the end of the summer, thousands of employees, students and patients will work in or visit OHSU’s massive new Collaborative Life Sciences building. The facility, which opened last month, will house 800 employees and attract an estimated 1,000 dental patients and 1,600 students daily, according to OHSU campus facilities vice president Brian Newman.

OHSU is also in the programming phase for two new South Waterfront buildings slated to come online in 2018. The first is the 300,000 square foot Knight Cancer Institute, a project that is dependent on OHSU succeeding with the Knight Cancer Challenge.

The second is the Center for Health and Healing South, a 700,000 square foot ambulatory care facility scheduled to break ground in 2016. So the OHSU portfolio alone comprises 1 million square feet of new development in the next five years.

And when Tilikum Crossing opens in 2015, cyclists, pedestrians and light rail users will sail across the river and into a neighborhood that pushes the boundaries of Portland's typical (and a bit tired) urban development model —  residences, restaurants, a smattering of office space.

“The next four years will be transformational," says Matt French, the fourth generation scion of the Zidell family and manager of the family's  33-acre Zidell Yards redevelopment site located between the tram and the Marquam Bridge.

Ten years ago, Zidell's retained renowned landscape architect Peter Walker (the firm behind Jamison Square) to assess the potential of the South Waterfront property. “We said: 'we have this property in Portland that’s kind of interesting,'” recalls French.

Walker’s response was decidedly less modulated. “He said it was a world class opportunity,” French said.

That was a wake up call for the family to develop a legacy project, with a focus on the “civic possibilities” of a space unrestricted by Portland’s grid, French says. The details have yet to be hammered out but will include a range of building types, including a possible corporate campus, innovative public spaces (curved alleyways, anyone?) and what French describes as a "true waterfront" connecting Portlanders to the river. The Zidell's first project was the Emery.

There’s a certain irony to South Waterfront’s comeback. Not so long ago, critics pegged South Waterfront as a sterile, wannabe Vancouver B.C. neighborhood that sucked up public dollars better spent elsewhere. Today, the locus of discontent has shifted to Portland’s eastside, where a massive — and homogenous — apartment boom has residents up in arms about the loss of historic character, affordability and livability in the city's signature urban neighborhoods.  

The South Waterfront development trajectory, as French puts it, is “proactively patient,” a long-range timeline fitting for such an ambitious project. As the rest of Portland transforms, willynilly and practically overnight, South Waterfront is looking less like folly – and more like foresight.

Linda Baker is the editor of Oregon Business.




0 #1 PrincipalGuest 2014-07-25 19:13:41
Get Google to move 5,000 employees from the SF Bay Area to the waterfront site Nike was going to take, then I'll be impressed. Until then, Portland sets its sights way too low.
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